Following a systematic two-year review, the English Department announced last spring two changes to major requirements that administrators say are aimed to encourage students to sample a wider range of classes.
The review — which included surveys of current and former English majors and a review by the Yale College Committee on Majors — resulted in an additional American literature requirement and made the senior requirement more flexible. English majors interviewed said the new requirements reflect compromise, incorporating what both students and professors wanted to change, but not necessarily addressing all the concerns brought up during the review.
English professor Leslie Brisman said although the review was a standard-issue procedure ordered by the Provost’s Office, the steadily declining number of English majors — the number dropped from 227 in 2001-’02 to 124 in 2007-’08, according to the Office of Institutional Research — increased its internal importance significantly.
The English Department surveyed all professors and students affiliated with the English major throughout the review period, although students said participation in the survey was fairly low among undergraduate majors. The undergraduate studies committee and the English Student Advisory Committee were involved in order to increase student input. A representative from each residential college met with the professors to discuss the student suggestions and vote on them as a body.
“It was very much a compromise between students and professors on what was good for the major,” Caroline Berson ’09 said. “There was pretty much a consensus in the room.”
Berson is a staff reporter for the News.
The new American literature requirement applies to the class of 2011 and subsequent classes, and requires students to study one term on any period of or figure from American literature. This decision was made after the departmental review found as many as 20 percent of English majors were not taking an American literature course, English Director of Undergraduate Studies Lawrence Manley said. A pre-1800 or pre-1900 course in this field can satisfy both a period requirement and the American requirement.
“We wanted to make sure that all our majors have some exposure to American literature — that they see it as an essential dimension of training in English,” English Department chairman Langdon Hammer said.
Although this additional class makes the list of requirements even more extensive, some English majors interviewed have responded positively to the change.
Thayne Stoddard ’11 said a background in American literature “is imperative to making a good Yale English major.” The requirement may even be unnecessary, he said.
“I feel that most English majors will take that course regardless of fulfilling a requirement,” Stoddard said.
Others, though, said the American literature requirement merely adds to the already long list of classes and seminars.
“I was surprised about this new requirement,” Rachel Sturm ’10 said. “I can see why people would be upset about having to take yet another course.”
Brisman said he would have supported even more options in the additional class requirement. He proposed last year that students should be able to choose between a semester of American literature or a semester of post-colonial literature.
“I wanted the requirement to have still more flexibility in it and alert people to the wide range in English and the desirability of the major,” he said.
The other important change in the English major requirements was the new flexibility with the senior requirement. Until now, seniors wishing to major in English had to choose between a senior essay and a senior seminar. Now the class of 2011 and subsequent classes have four different combinations of essays and seminars to choose from.
The department has also made changes to accommodate both the seniors’ workload and the “increasingly interdisciplinary nature of the study of English, American and Anglophone literature,” acting English Director of Undergraduate Studies John Rogers said.
“We will be permitting students to count one relevant course on a nonliterary topic in another department to count toward the major,” Rogers said.
The department has already introduced some reforms in recent years. A popular change was made in 2005 when the pre-1800 requirement was relaxed. Until then, potential English majors had to take four courses on pre-1800 literature. Now, one of the four required courses may be substituted with a pre-1900 literature course.
“The sentiment is that, as time goes on and there is more current literature, we need to make sure our major is sampled widely in various ways,” Brisman said.
Hammer said while the English Department is considering other changes in the future, the process “will take some time.”
“We are going to see how these changes take, evaluate their effects, and decide whether we want to introduce more,” Hammer said.